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Friday, September 10, 2010


I hate misplacing things. Because no matter what you have misplaced, the cost is always double. First there is the thing. Then because of the flaying about looking for the thing, you lose your train of throught. I find its always better to just assume you lost it years ago and let it go. Eventually it will turn up. I learned this lesson from John Paul Jones, the pugnatious and aggressive Scotsman who founded the American Navy.
John Paul had the first requirment for greatness; luck. While serving as third mate on board a merchantman in 1768, both the captain and the first mate died of yellow fever, instantly promoting him. Over the following years Captain John Paul aquired a reputation for brutality. And just when his carreer seemed to have reached a dead end, luckily, his brother died in the colony of Virginia and left him a small fortune.
John Paul decided to stay in Virginia, and to confuse any hounding lawyers added a third name to his moniker. And when, luckily, the shooting started in Boston, Captain John Paul Jones packed up his resume and offered to fight for his new country as a privatier.
At first he did most of his fighting just to get a ship. But when he finally did, flying the American flag while sailing out of France, he had at last justified his luck. He raided British ports. He captured British merhcant ships in full view of the English coast. He lashed his ship to an English warship and fought it out until both ships were sinking. Offered a chance to surrender, he responded, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Then the British warship surrendered to him.
When that war was over John Paul Jones was out of work. So, with congressional approval, he hired on with the Russian Navy. But that never worked out and he even contracted pneumonia. In May of 1790 he returned to Paris. And it was there, on July 17, 1792, that the 45 year old was found lying face down on his bed, dead as a doornail. His sevents and admirers pickled the hero in rum, packed him into an iron coffin, and buried him in the old Saint Louis Cemetery, set aside for foreign protestants.
Three weeks after John Paul Jones was laid to rest, a mob decended on the Royal Palace of Tuileries, and captured the King and Queen. To achieve this, they had to first butcher his Swiss guard, and their bodies were dumped into a common grave right next to Jones' resting place. What with the revolution and wars, by 1796 the cemetary was abandoned and forgotten. And for the next 100 years John Paul Jones floated in rum, and slowly decomposed while the mundane world went on with out him and about him. In time he came to be buried beneath a grocery, a laundry, an apartment house and their attendant sheds, toliets, cess pools and wells.
And there he might have stayed had not a lunatic shot American President William McKinnely in September of 1901.
That lunatic made Vice President Teddy Roosevelt, at 44, the younget man ever to take the oath as President of the United States. And when Teddy decided to run for his own term, in 1904, he was opposed by Republican National Chairman Mark Hanna (below), who protrayed fellow Republican Teddy as a wild eyed lunatic, and called him  “that damn cowboy”.
What Roosevelt needed in 1904 was anything that would make him look like a stalwart defender of tradition. He found what he needed when his abassador to France pointed out that one of our greatest Revolutionary War heroes had been MIA in Pais for the last one hundred years. So the order went forth in typical Teddy Roosevelt fashion, “Dig up our hero!” whatever it costs.
General Horace Porter (above) was a civil war hero, a friend of President Grant, and now the amasador to France. He had become obsessed with finding the body of John Paul Jones in 1897 after a biography of the old salt was published. And after three years of research through old maps and confusing government records Porter found the cemetary where Jones had been buried, now adjacent to the Rue de la Grange aux Belles, or in the more prosaic English, Street of the beautiful barn. Because of all the construction, the only way to recover the hero now was to tunnel into the graveyard, not a pleasant occupation, but a great plot for a horror movie.
Before he could dig, Porter had to get the current owners’ permission. It took him two years to negotiate the price for a 3 month contract with all the local land owners. At the same time President Roosevelt submitted a special appropiation to pay the $35,000 price tag to dig up John Paul Jones’ corpse. John Paul would not have been surprised to discover that a hundred years had not made the Congress any more rational. On evening of Friday, February 3, 1905, Mr. Porter started the work, on his own dime. Congress had ignored the President's request.
Heading the project was M. Paul Weiss, who had been trained as a mining engineer, and he was going to need it. Weiss sunk the first shaft 18 feet straight down into a back yard. He discovered that the bodies had not been moved. That was the good news. The bad news was that despite the construction over the graves, the ground was not well compacted, and a great deal of time had to be spent shoring up the shafts, and supporting the building walls. Noted Porter, “Slime, mud, and mephitic (fould smelling and poisonous) odors were encountered, and long red worms appeared in abundance.”
“Two more large shafts were sunk in the yards and two in the Rue Grange-aux-Belles, making five in all. Day and night gangs of work men were employed…Galleries were pushed in every direction and ‘‘soundings’’ were made between them with long iron tools,…so that no leaden coffin could possibly be missed."
Digging at times on their hands and knees by flickering candle light, the miners spent most of their time just shoring up the caverns they were digging. The wooden coffins had long since corrided away. The bodies had been slowly decaying in the soil, and the miners introduced waves of fresh air that hastened the decay. The stench was often overwhelming. Three lead coffins were found, the first on February 22, and the second a month later. Those two had copper plates identifying their occupants. Neither was John Paul Jones.  Shortly there after they found the King’s Swiss Guard, in their mass grave, stacked one atop the next. And now Weiss knew they were on the right track.
On March 31st the miners hit the third lead coffen, without a plate The crew decided they needed more fresh air before they opened it. It was a good thing they did.
On April 8th they they finally struggled to pry loose the coffin lid, under the watchful eye of Ambassador Porter (above, left). The body inside was wrapped in tin foil. The stench of alcohol filled the tunnel. Rolling back the tin foil, there, with his nose bent by the weight of the coffin lid, was the recognizable face of John Paul Jones. After a hundred years he needed a shampoo, but that was to be expected.
Doctor J. Capitan performed an autopsy and determined that the heart and liver were normal, but the left lung showed signs of “small patches of broncho-pneumonia partially cicatrized” He wrote that he had come to the conclusion that “the corpse of which we have made a study is that of John Paul Jones”.
Teddy Roosevelt ordered up a fleet of 11 battle ships to escort Captain John Paul Jones back to America. On April 24, 1906, he was placed in a temporary tomb in Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Anapolis, Maryland. It was temporary tomb because Congress had yet to pass the appropiation to pay the cost to recover the body.
When the hero arrived home, Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech. He had been re-elected President without serious opposition because Mark Hanna had died of typhoid fever in February of 1904. So in one regard, the whole thing had been uneccesary. And congress never did pass that authorisation. Poor General Porter had to take up a collection before he could be re-embursed. But at least, at last, John Paul Jones was home.
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Wednesday, September 08, 2010


I hasten to point out that the men who sought shelter at the Inn were not a harmonious quartet of criminal masterminds. It turns out they were not master crimminals, either. But then, how many people are masters in any line of work? The lead voice in this particular choir was Charles Gibbs, a diminutive thirty-six year old fire plug - and the last pirate in New York City who did not work on Wall Street. His Achilles in crime was the baritone Thomas Wansely, a tall and powerfully built black man too curious by half. The bass was voiced by Robert Dawes, cook and nonentity, a plump man with no criminal record, as of yet. But tenor and ringer and lead singer was John Brownrigg, who possessed a fatal combination of a conscious and stupidity, which caused him to first commit a crime and then to confess it unbidden to a complete stranger.
Perhaps it was the warm food, or the hot rum or perhaps it was the flames of purgatory in his imagination which drove John Brownrigg to draw innkeeper Samuel Leonard aside and spill his tale on that stormy afternoon of November 24, 1830. The four men, explained John, had all been crewmen of the small brig Vineland, docked at Vera Cruz, Mexico, loaded with a cargo of cotton bales, and casks of molasses and rum. Have you noticed how often piracy begins with rum?
Late in the day Thomas Wansely had been ordered by Captain William Thornby to stack a half dozen heavy barrels in the Captain’s quarters. The strain and curiosity drove Wansely to pry open one of the leaden barrels for a peek. Inside he found newly minted silver coins – Mexican pieces of eight. And as the tide pulled the Vineland into the Gulf of Mexico, Wansely shared his discovery with first mate Charles Gibbs.
By Gibb’s figuring the barrels together held today’s equivalent of over one million dollars in untraceable cash. It was untraceable because, without a standardized national currency of their own in 1830, Spanish and Mexican coins circulated so commonly in America, that prices were figured as the equivalent in Spanish (and Mexican) currency, to the point that today’s ubiquitous American “$” sign was borrowed from its Spanish inventors.
In the morning, Gibbs and Wansely opened one of the barrels of rum and shared it with Dawes, Brownrigg and the other crewmen. And once they were all well intoxicated, Gibbs first told them of the cargo of silver, and then confessed that the previous night he had thrown Captain Thornby overboard. With that much money at stake, explained Gibbs, they were now all under suspicion of murder. So, Gibbs suggested, why not share the crime and the silver between them. One crewman balked and joined the captain in the briny deep. The others quickly agreed to become pirates. As the Vineland crossed the Gulf, bound for New York, a second man sobered up and expressed regret. He joined the other two in the sea.
The crew's doubts thus drowned, on November 23, 1830 the Vineland reached the westernmost barrier island off New York. Its name derives from the Dutch ‘Conyne Eylandt’, meaning Rabbit Island, known today as Coney Island. The freshly minted pirates anchored in an isolated corner of Jamaica Bay. And it was there, with a nor’easter brewing in the gathering darkness, the four men struggled to lower a skiff and fill it with their heavy burdensome barrels of silver. They then scuttled the Vineland and set her afire. As she sank into the muddy waters of the bay the four men in the low riding skiff set off for shore, at what is today Rockaway Beach.
It was not beach weather. The surf was pounding. A gale was approaching. The landing was a disaster. In the crashing waves the four seamen lost most of their booty, and were able to save just 10% of the coins. Wet and cold and exhausted, soaked by a pounding downpour, the gang of four came to the realization they had not thought things through as well as they thought they had. While Wanesly and Brownrigg stood a shivering guard over what was left of their loot, Gibbs and Dawes walked to a tavern Gibbs recalled in the isolated village of Carnarsie.
The tavern was run by the Johnson brothers, John and William. The youngest, William, who answered the door that night, recognized Gibbs and was willing to loan him a horse and wagon for an hour or so. Gibbs explained he had a heavy load to transfer from a boat.
Having thus obtained the tools required, Gibbs and Dawes returned to the beach, and, according to Brownrigg, the four men buried the remaining $56,000 in Mexican silver, marking the spot with a strand of ribbon tied to a blade of saw grass. They then returned to Johnson’s house and Gibbs paid for the rental with a generous bag of brand new Mexican coins.
The four pirates were headed for lower Manhattan, where they would claim the Vineland had been lost in the storm. But their convenient alibi was by now pounding the coast, and after having crossed Coney Creek, the quartet was forced to seek refuge in John Leonard’s Sheepshead Bay Inn, where John Brownrigg spilled his guts.
The Inn keeper, Mr. Leonard, was nothing if not decisive. Quietly he gathered his staff and they fell upon the three villains. Well, two of the villains. Gibbs and Dawes were quickly tied to their chairs, but Wanesly broke for the woods, followed by the courageous waiter Robert Greenwood who was armed with an unloaded flintlock pistol. An hour later Greenwood returned, with Wanesly in tow.
The local justice of the peace, John Van Dyck, was summoned, and the next morning Brownrigg lead the authorities to the buried treasure. Only the treasure was not there anymore. Under questioning Dawes decided to cooperate as well, and related the tale of the visit to the Johnson brothers tavern. So, Justice Van Dyke and several officers proceeded to the tavern.  Under questioning the Johnson brothers confirmed the details of the pirates visit, but, no, they insisted, they knew nothing else. Van Dyck was certain that they did. And he was correct.
In fact the instant Gibbs had crossed William Johnson’s palm with the silver, he had converted William into a mastermmind as well. With newly minted silver in his palm, Wiliam knew that something serious was afoot. Perhaps if the payment had been less generous, or if Gibbs had paid in any other currency, his secret might have remained a secret. As it was, 19 year old William Johnson immediately woke up his older brother John, and after examining the weary horse’s hooves, the two brothers searched the beach. They quickly found the cache of stolen silver and re-stole it. They dragged it inland a few hundred yards, divided and re-buried it in two new caches, one of about $40,000 worth and the second of about $16,000 worth. And then they returned home for a hearty breakfast.
Justice Van Dyke suspected all of this, or most of it. But he could prove none of it. And once a beachcomber had discovered Mexican eights rolling in the surf, and was joined by hundreds of others combing the sand, there was no way of proving where the crazy eights had come from, the reburied re-stolen cache or the surf. Van Dyke could only choke the four birds he still had in his hand, held for now in the Flatbush Jail.
And then something curious happened, or perhaps inevtiable. William Johnson began to suffer from the same aliment which had plauged John Brownrigg. He approached the insurance company (yes, even in 1830 there were insurance companies), and inquired what they might pay as a reward for the return of some of the missing silver. The insurance company replied that they would be willing to make a generous settlement which might not leave the Johnson brothers filthy rich, but at least they would be free from worry of future legal entanglements. Encouraged, William returned to the Coney Island Beach to confirm the security of the two caches, whereupon he made a most distressing discovery.
The larger cache was gone. Also missing was his older brother John. Had the 21 year old John become a mastermind, twice over? Perhaps; but John was married, so there was his wife’s criminal mastermindy-ness to consider as well. Evidently either John or his wife had reached the conclusion that even though John had not actually heard opportunity knock on their tavern's front door that night, he had been awakened to it. Thus he was deserving of the larger share of the stolen silver than the brother who had actually heard opportunity knock. So he took it. Broken hearted, betrayed and abandoned, 17 year old Willaim Johnson returned the $16,000 in pieces of eight left behind in exchange for a very small reward. And a clear concious. 
On April 22, 1831, on the site that would one day support the Statue of Liberty, criminal masterminds Charles Gibbs and Thomas Wansley climbed the thirteen steps of a scaffold, where they were both hanged by the neck until they were dead. Gibbs had been convicted of piracy, and was the last man hanged for that crime in America - so his death was not entirely without meaning. Wansley died for the crime of murder. Dawes and Brownrigg, who had co-operated,  served short jail terms, and then disappeared from history. William Johnson the more honest of the two brothers, remained in Brooklyn. He married and raised at least one son and a daughter. He died in 1906.
But of the two remaining masterminds, the elder brother John Johnson and his wife, were not heard from again after escaping with today’s equivalent of $800,000 in cash. And that is curious. That much money does not usually simply disappear.  I would very much like to know what became of this pair of masterminds, because if, as I suspect, he or she later turned up dead, then we would know if the percentage of criminal masterminds in this affair was 20% or less - less being the historical average. Greed has a way of making otherwise smart people fatally stupid. Greedy people are no longer masters of their own minds. 
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Sunday, September 05, 2010


I was stunned to discover, reading the "Potsdam statement", issued in July 26, 1945,  issued in triumphant from amidst the rubble of a vanquished and occupied Nazi Germany, that it was pure politics - part a political initiative, part boastful victory display, and part pure posturing for the voters back home. It was not a diplomatic document. It was not written by or for diplomats. It was signed by the U.S., Great Britain and China, but it had been written by and for the Americans.
The Pacific was America's war, beginning on December 7, 1941, the "date which will live in infamy...".  And in the statement you will find none of Lincoln’s wise magnanimity. It began with a warning, “The might that now converges on Japan is immeasurably greater than that which, when applied to the resisting Nazis, necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry…of the whole German people…” .  The Americans had reason to boast.
In the 44 months since Pearl Harbor the United States had largely supplied the allied victory in Europe, and at the same time had built eight new battleships, 13 heavy cruisers, 2 large cruisers, 33 light cruisers, 18 heavy aircraft carriers, 76 light or jeep carriers, more than 600 destroyers and destroyer escorts, plus 4,000 large landing craft and 79,000 small landing craft. The Marine Corp had grown to over half a million men and the U.S. Army to one million men in fighting divisions. And it was this force, supplied in abundance and seeking revenge, which was descending upon Japan in August of 1945.
It was this sense of moral outrage, the thrust for justice and revenge that explained the haughtily tone in which the U.S. informed Japan that the “Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay. There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest. Until such a new order is established and until there is convincing proof that Japan's war-making power is destroyed …Japanese territory…shall be occupied…Japanese sovereignty shall be limited….as we determine…(and) stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals…We call…(for the) unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces,…The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.” It could almost have been written by an American political speechwriter; In fact, it was.
The Japanese, reading this statement, noted two things; first, the Russians had not signed it; and two, there was no direct mention of the Emperor. But they had also noticed that American propaganda often included hateful images of the Emperor. And the section about removing “...those who have deceived and misled” seemed to the Japanese, and to most Americans, to refer directly to the Emperor. And in 1945 the Japanese leadership was prepared to destroy the entire nation to prevent Hirohito from standing trial like a mere mortal.
From the 1890’s on, all Japanese children were indoctrinated in the belief that the nation and the Emperor were synonymous, that Japan began and ended with the Chrysanthemum Throne. According to the Imperial Cult, the Emperor was a spiritual leader, closer to a pope than a king. His subjects fought “for the Emperor” but they took orders from mortal men who ran the government, men like Tojo.
Hirohito certainly approved of their wars against China, England and America, but they were not "his" wars. He had not ordered them and was often a mere prop for the war makers. He was not expected to speak at meetings of his "Big Six" cabinet. (the meeting ending the war was the first at which he did speak). Besides, Japan had a long and ancient history of ignoring or “working around” inconvenient imperial wishes; which was the problem the Emperor now faced in ending the war.
 Like all Kings and Presidents, he was a prisoner of his office, be it Edo Palace or the White House. Without a free press Hirohito only knew what his staff and advisers told him. And he could only act through them. He, like everyone else in Japan, believed the nation could not survive without the Emperor. And he had come, finally, to believe his throne could not survive unless the war was ended quickly.
The Americans agreed, for their own reasons, mostly to keep the Russians out of Japan. And on August 11, just one day after the Swiss communicated the Japanese note to the Americans, the American leadership replied, again speaking through the Swiss to the Japanese. The Americans were still firm and still boastful. After all they were the winners of this war. “From the moment of surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government… shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Nations. The Emperor will…authorize and ensure the signature by the Government of Japan…of the surrender terms…" 
And there, hidden in all that brash macho braggadocio lay the compromise that ended World War Two in the Pacific. The U.S. was telling the Japanese (for the first time), that if they wanted the Emperor, they could have the Emperor, as long as he had no direct authority - something he had never really had; problem solved. The Americans had done the calculations in their heads and decided that removing the Emperor was not worth another one million casualties, not worth letting the Russians occupy any more of Asia, not worth spending any more on a war that had been won over a year ago . 
To which the Japanese Government replied as quickly as the stilted etiquette and security of the Palace, politics and diplomacy would allow, on August 14th, and again via the Swiss: “His Majesty the Emperor…is prepared to authorize and ensure the signature by his Government…of the necessary terms for carrying out the provisions of the Potsdam declaration. His Majesty is also prepared to issue his commands to…surrender arms and to issue such other orders as may be required…”  The Emperor would issue orders, the Emperor would issue commands....Hirohito would play the American figure head, instead of the Japanese figure head.  
Done and done. Now all they had to do was separate the opponents, which would be a bit like separating two amorous porcupines - a very delicate procedure.
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